Air Force coach Troy Calhoun leads his team onto the field at Falcon Stadium. Calhoun has guided the Falcons to a 41-23 record in five seasons (2-2 in bowls).
COLORADO SPRINGS GAZETTE/KEVIN KRECK Enlarge
Air Force vs. Toledo in the Military Bowl seems like one of the toughest bowl games to figure, and a former Colorado coach who will be broadcasting the game can’t pick a winner either.
Dan Hawkins will be calling the game for ESPN. He has watched film of both teams and thinks it’ll be one of the more even matchups in the bowl season. He probably wouldn’t pick a winner, considering he’s calling the game, but he doesn’t know who has the edge.
“I really don’t,” Hawkins said. “If I had to put my money down I’d have a hard time. I can make a case for both sides. I think it’s going to be fun.”
Hawkins did make a case for both sides, and here’s some of his pregame analysis:
The case for Air Force:
3 REASONS WHY AIR FORCE WILL WIN:
1. Toledo may still be reeling from the departure of coach Tim Beckman, who resigned to accept the same position with Illinois earlier this month. The Rockets have maintained they’ve moved on from Beckman, but some of the younger players on the team admitted to taking the divorce pretty hard and could be questioning their future with Matt Campbell as head coach.
2. Air Force’s triple option will be confuse UT’s defensive players, who haven’t seen any thing like the run-based scheme in their college careers. The Rockets have had three weeks to prepare for the Falcons’ rushing attack, but nothing matches seeing it in person. Even Georgia Tech, which faced Air Force in the Independence Bowl last year and runs the triple option, had trouble containing the Falcons on the ground.
3. The Falcons will be playing in front of a pro-military crowd at Washington’s RFK Stadium. Air Force sold more than 10,000 tickets for the game, and several thousand more tickets were distributed to military members around the D.C. area. By comparison, Toledo sold less than 2,000 tickets, so Rocket fans will be severely outnumbered.
Hawkins pointed out that Toledo has a good run defense, but that matters little against Air Force’s unusual offense, which features the option. Toledo hasn’t faced an option team in years.
“Just because you can stop the conventional offense doesn’t mean you can stop the option,” Hawkins said.
He used the example of Boise State, which played pretty well on defense all year but gave up a lot of yards to Air Force.
“They moved it on offense now, and Boise is doggone good on defense,” Hawkins said.
Hawkins said Air Force’s versatility on offense should be on full display.
“They’ve got a lot of buttons to push,” Hawkins said.
Hawkins thought fan support could make a difference. Air Force thinks it can sell more than 12,500 tickets. The Falcons were on the verge of passing 10,000 tickets sold a couple days ago.
Meanwhile, the Rockets have sold just 1,200 tickets of their 5,000-ticket allotment.
Matt Campbell, who was UT’s offensive coordinator, was named head coach Dec. 12 after the departure of Tim Beckman, who left to become the head coach at Illinois.
“I think emotion is a big deal,” Hawkins said. “Winning on the road is hard in college sports. Emotion is such a big component in all that. Will the crowd be enough to throw Toledo off balance? I don’t know. But it may be enough for Air Force to feel like they’re in friendly confines.”
Hawkins thought Air Force’s defense is better than it gets credit for. He rattled off the first four games of Falcons’ October schedule — Navy, Notre Dame, San Diego State, and Boise State — and said that was the reason they gave up so many points.
“I think their defense was not good because they were up against some good teams,” Hawkins said. “I don’t know if you can say they were bad.”
The case for Toledo:
3 REASONS WHY TOLEDO WILL WIN:
1. Eric Page and the Rockets’ spread offense will overwhelm a shaky Air Force defense. The Falcons’ secondary is allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 61 percent of their passes, so Page and the other UT receivers should have plenty of room to operate in the short to intermediate passing game, which is Toledo’s bread and butter.
2. Air Force hasn’t shown it can win against tough competition. The Falcons needed two in four of their last five contests to become bowl eligible, and the teams they beat aren’t exactly a murderers’ row of opponents — New Mexico, Army, Nevada-Las Vegas and Colorado State. In losses to Texas Christian, Notre Dame, San Diego State, Wyoming and Boise State, Air Force was outscored 197-122.
3. The Rockets are bigger and stronger than Air Force at almost every position, especially on the offensive and defensive lines. UT should be able to win the battle in the trenches and put pressure on Air Force quarterback Tim Jefferson and the Falcons’ backfield. Keeping containment on the edges defensively will be key, and the Rockets showed the ability to do that earlier in the season against Temple’s potent run game.
In watching the Rockets, Hawkins simply saw a very good team. He thought they played well on offense and defense. Particularly on offense, he said the Rockets could pass the ball with either quarterback they use, and became a good running team by the end of the year.
“Nobody really stops them,” Hawkins said.
A big issue for Toledo has been the coaching change since the regular season ended.
Tim Beckman left for Illinois, and he was replaced by offensive coordinator Matt Campbell.
How the Rockets handle that will be a big deal in the outcome of the game.
“Is that an emotional drain?” Hawkins said. “But Campbell has stayed so it might be the ‘We’re good without you’ mantra.”
Air Force had problems with ball security all year, while Toledo was good at avoiding turnovers.
That’s a huge deal in every football game, and it could be a factor in the Military Bowl. When Hawkins saw Air Force on film, he thought that was one of the team’s biggest issues.
“The bugaboo for Air Force has been turnovers,” Hawkins said. “That will be critical.”
Toledo should have a better chance to defend Air Force’s option given the extra weeks to prepare. Usually teams have just a few days to learn how to play against the Falcons.
“It think it helps Toledo,” Hawkins said. “Nobody likes to see it with three days of preparation. It’ll definitely help Toledo. How close they can replicate it in practice, who knows, but it is an advantage.”